What they should teach PR freelancers (but don't)

Merely attending a course in Public Relations falls short of what it takes to commercially succeed as PR freelancer in 2011. Workshops, seminars and ‘master-classes’ can definitely offer the tools and techniques of PR. But industry-recognised or not, most classrooms will struggle to teach the ‘life lessons’ that see the sector’s freelancers survive and thrive. These finer points of single-handedly running a successful PR operation were revealed to Freelance UK by:


· two veteran PR consultants who are self-employed;

· a sector-leading PR consultancy that uses and works with freelance PR staff, and

· a creative staff recruitment agency that places freelancers in PR roles across the UK


PR – a non-siloed business


PR strategies can certainly be taught but ‘business-savvy’ can’t, according to Michelle Bayliss, a PR consultant with almost two decades of freelancing under her belt.

“I cannot stress [enough] how important it is to understand your client’s business and what they are trying to achieve,” she said. “ [To really be effective, you must] get under the skin of your client’s business and realise what part you and your PR skills play in meeting their business objectives.”

To help with day-to-day communication with client staff, she believes that freelancers should understand “the bigger business picture” – regionally and nationally. They should encourage the client to engage with whatever is on the business or industry agenda at that time. Bayliss enforced: “Their company doesn’t exist in a bubble [and nor do you].”

Know your mark


This staple exercise for PR freelancers normally makes it onto most courses, even those created in the noughties and before. But Rona Levin, an award-winning PR and Communications freelancer, is “astounded” by the number of PR freelancers who still don’t “make the effort” to research a prospective client.

She explained:“Before striking out on my own,I often commissioned freelancers for a variety of PR roles. When I asked simple questions to test their knowledge about the company…unbelievably, many replied that they'd learn ‘that sort of thing’ once they'd start on the job.”

Know your mark’s PR profile

As freelancers are often hired amid staff shortages or extra heavy workloads, the first day on the job is not the time to ask searching questions of your client. The more you know before you start – about the client, their business and your brief, the better equipped you will be.

But Levin advises against swallowing the client’s marketing material whole: “Don't just look at the press releases issued by the company...check Google News stories as well, and look at a company's most recent annual report. These sources can give a totally different perspective, and highlight strengths and weaknesses.”

(Polite) Disagreement is no bad thing

Learn how to push back – don’t become a ‘yes-person’ to your client, particularly if you know an idea or angle will not work for them, Bayliss recommended. After all – “they are engaging your services as a professional and it is important that they understand how the business of PR works.” Then, she said, communicate how you can help them and their business to get the most out of it.


Follow the brief, or say why you won’t early

For Levin, the worst possible thing a PR freelancer can do is to not follow a brief and not deliver what a client wants, particularly on the grounds that “you don't think it can be done.”

“If you genuinely feel the client has an unreasonable expectation of what you can deliver or what is achievable, then you must say so tactfully and persuasively at the outset, with hard facts to back your argument up,” the London-based consultant said. “And that's where the upfront research (‘Know your mark’) also comes in handy.”

It’s not always better to talk


Despite direct speech on the phone or from face-to-face contact having its advantages, PR freelancers charged with making an announcement to the media on behalf of a client should note that a well-placed and well-timed email is sometimes preferable to a journalist.

“Different journalists like to be contacted in different ways,” says an established PR consultancy specialising in the education and skills sector. Some journalists won’t even look at unsolicited emails, while others will direct you to their inbox as soon as you raise them on the phone. Make sure you find out what works for the journalist you’re dealing with today; remember that approach is particular to that person and re-use it when you need to contact the individual again.


Avoid irking journalists

More universally, PR freelancers in charge of writing and sending press releases should avoid a sales pitch and refrain from making claims that are not backed up by facts, the consultancy said. Journalists also don’t want to receive press releases or stories that are not relevant to their readers, and dislike large attachments they haven’t asked for, typically jpeg, gif and bmp files.

Stay on top of trends

Knowing about the latest musings, memes and movements in PR – at the same time as getting on top of your career as a temporary professional (as opposed to a full-time employee on the payroll) - is crucial to thriving as a PR freelancer. So that means knowing which PR skills are in-demand, when the market is likely to be hot, and when it’s not.

Reflecting this week, Margaret Maupin, a director at creative recruiter Cogs Agency underlined the point: “We've recently seen a 5% increase in the demand for PR freelancers with digital skills.

“Digital skills still command a premium on freelancer pay rates compared with creative freelancers who do not have digital skills,” she said. “This hasn't changed since June. [Meanwhile] we've just come through the summer period, when there were a lot of short-term freelance bookings due to holiday cover.”

No spoon-feeding (or spills) allowed

Almost regardless of why you’re being hired for PR services on a freelance basis, the client will want you to “hit the ground running…and get on with the job with minimal supervision.” Levin added that clients don't normally have much ‘getting-to-know-you’ time to play with, or just can't be bothered briefing people on anything other than “the bare necessities.” She said this is true for freelance workers across most creative sectors, but there is an additional onus on the freelancer in the PR and Communications space to also be “a safe pair of hands”.


21st September 2011

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